HC Deb 25 January 1978 vol 942 cc1384-91

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

23. Mr. John Hunt

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the results of the recent discussions in Mexico on the subject of the Guatemalan claims to part of Belize.

26. Mr. Durant

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's policy with regard to Belize.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

I will, with permission, answer these Questions together.

Accompanied by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands), I held meetings yesterday and today with the Premier of Belize, the Hon. George Price, who was accompanied by Ambassador Courtenay and Mr. Shoman, the Attorney-General of Belize. There was a frank discussion of the problems facing Belize. The Belizean representatives reiterated the position of their Government that negotiations should continue on the basis of the United Nations resolution and the territorial integrity of Belize.

I confirmed that any settlement must be acceptable to the Government and people of Belize. I said that recent British discussions with the Guatemalans had been exploratory; various proposals, including the possibility of territorial adjustments, had been discussed but no agreements had been made or would be made which were not subject to the approval of the people of Belize. The Premier of Belize asked that the issue should be put directly to the people of Belize and that the Commonwealth should be associated with this process of consultation. I readily agreed to both these requests.

Both Governments agreed that their aim was early and secure independence for Belize.

The British Government will continue their search for a negotiated settlement, which has not yet been achieved, in discussions with Guatemala and other interested Governments.

Mr. Hunt

I welcome the Foreign Secretary's reply, as far as it goes. Will he agree that any ultimate decision to cede the southern part of Belize—which is rich in oil potential—to Guatemala, whose record on human rights and other matters is far from impressive, would be seen as a betrayal of a very loyal and struggling colony? Will he please comment on that?

Dr. Owen

I can say that no decision to cede territory would be made without the agreement of the people of Belize. I think that is perfectly clear. That is the assurance that I have consistently given and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has done so much in the recent negotiations, has consistently and firmly held to that position.

Mr. Durant

I welcome a great deal of what is in the statement, but is the Foreign Secretary further aware that the population of Belize, who are very loyal to this country, look to us to defend their interests? He says that they will be consulted, but will he be a little more expressive as to the form in which he might see this consultation taking place, bearing in mind that Belize has a number of political parties?

Dr. Owen

I think we have to take account of that, but it is primarily with the Government of Belize that we would discuss these issues. I have given an assurance that the method of consultation would be discussed with them, and we would seek to reach agreement on this. I think that that is the fair way of proceeding. But I recognise that we have to take account of all views in Belize on this issue.

Dr. M. S. Miller

I am sure that we are all grateful for the statement. What steps will Her Majesty's Government take to ensure that the people of Belize as a whole approve of what is going on in their part of the world? If the people of Belize indicate that they will have no truck with the carving up of their country, what will be Her Majesty's Government's attitude?

Dr. Owen

If this situation were put to the people of Belize and they decided that they did not want any change, the status quo would continue. It would remain a Crown colony and Britain would defend the territorial integrity of Belize.

The problem we face is that the people of Belize have, for over a decade or more, naturally wanted increasingly to have their independence. We have a problem as to bringing that country to secure and stable independence, with the territorial claims and the associated problems around the boundaries of that country. The issue can either be just left alone or it has to be grappled with. I think that it should be grappled with—with the absolute safeguard that it will be the people of Belize who will decide.

Mr. Thorpe

I think we can welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement unequivocally but we are not absolutely certain and hope that he will answer three questions.

First, will he confirm that he agrees with Mr. Price that the territorial integrity of Belize must be inviolate prior to independence? Second, may we take it that consultation means his preparedness to have a referendum before independence? Third, if there are territorial problems, will he not discuss the possibility of a Commonwealth guarantee of the integrity of the boundaries of that country?

Dr. Owen

Anyone who knows Mr. Price, who has led his people for the last 14 years very successfully, knows that he would never agree to a sell-out, and the British Government have no intention of agreeing to a sell-out. Mr. Price has never changed his position on territorial integrity. He has maintained that and also his position on the United Nations resolution.

I have made it clear to the House that we are discussing, among other things, territorial adjustments. I think that it is right that those should be explored. But any territorial adjustment would be put to the people of Belize. As to the form in which it would be put, the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion is clearly one obvious way in which it could be done. I have undertaken to discuss this with the Government of Belize and to take account of the views of the people of Belize.

We have been trying to get guarantees for an independent Belize for many years, and I think it is important to get these guarantees. If I believed it were possible to get a United Nations guarantee, or something of that sort, we should probably not be involved in some of these difficult negotiations.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Belize Government was consulted in advance and its permission given in advance before the demarcation of territory with neighbouring countries was discussed?

Dr. Owen

The Premier of Belize and the Government have constantly, consistently and rightly held their position on territorial integrity and on the United Nations resolution. I think they recognise that the British Government have the ultimate responsibility for attempting to bring Belize to independence. Premier Price has attended all the formal negotiations and has been kept fully informed of all our informal discussions with the Guatamalans, but he has not shifted from his basic position, nor do I think it appropriate for him to do so. The British Government do not accept that there should be any claim on the territory of Belize. We are prepared to try to see whether negotiation can resolve the problem.

Mr. Amery

Having had some experience of negotiations with Guatemala on this question, may I ask the Foreign Secretary the following questions? Is he satisfied that the discussion of territorial adjustment on our part is compatible with the Commonwealth communications of 1975 and 1977, when we said that we would stand by the territorial integrity of Belize? When the Foreign Secretary commits himself to seeking the consent of the Belize people, is it not time that we considered what form that would take? Finally, has he had discussions with the Commonwealth Committee—which I think was set up under Mr. Adams, the Prime Minister of Barbados, to monitor and follow all these negotiations?

Dr. Owen

I attended a meeting of the Commonwealth group in New York, and I have always been very frank with them about what has been discussed. I am very grateful to the Commonwealth countries for observing the necessity to keep some of these negotiations private.

I have already said that the matter would be put directly to the people of Belize. I think that Premier Price will want to go back to Guatemala and make his own decisions as to how this should be done. I think that we can resolve that very easily, but I wish to preserve his position and that of the Government of Belize on that question.

As to being satisfied about the territorial adjustment and the Guatemalan attitude, I think that there is beginning to be a recognition in the whole of the region that it would be in the interests of the whole of the region to resolve this issue. I pay tribute to the great help that has been given by many other countries. They have differing views on the justice and rights of the claim, but they are all trying to get a settlement. It will not be easy to get a settlement, and the final decision will be taken by the people of Belize.

Mr. Rose

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that his words leave one with a certain amount of uneasiness, not least after what happened in Cyprus? Will he give an unequivocal undertaking to the people of Belize that there shall be no violation of their wishes and that we shall safeguard their interests? Will he further take this opportunity of discussing the economic viability of the area, in particular the problem of citrus fruit developments upon which the economy of Belize so much depends?

Dr. Owen

On the economic problem, I agree with my hon. Friend that we must look seriously—both before and after any possible settlement is achieved—at ways of ensuring the greater economic strength and stability of Belize, particularly if it were to become independent.

With regard to security—let us be frank—one of the difficulties of getting negotiations of this sort on territorial adjustments is the fear that people would hold—were the people of Belize to decide not to accept such territorial adjustments—about the intentions of the British Government in holding particularly that territory which has been discussed.

We have made perfectly clear to the Government of Guatemala that we would be prepared to uphold that territory. Our readiness to discuss this issue and to put it to the people of Belize does not mean any weakening whatever of the British Government's position. If the people of Belize decide that they do not want a territorial adjustment we shall then defend the territorial integrity of Belize as a Crown colony. That is a firm commitment.

Over the last two years we have gone to the defence of the people of Belize and, if necessary, we shall do so again. I hope that that will not be necessary.

Mr. Rifkind

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that during any referendum which may take place the British Government will not bring any pressure on the people of Belize as to how they should vote in that referendum?

Dr. Owen

I shall not bring any pressure but I certainly think it right to explain the case. The British Government will not put the issue to the people of Belize unless they think that this is an issue which they should discuss. I shall probably make a recommendation—in fact, certainly make a recommendation—otherwise we would not put the issue to them. But there will be no pressure. This will be a free choice. That was one of the reasons why I readily agreed that the Commonwealth should be associated in the process of consulting the people of Belize.

Mr. Dalyell

What is being done to win the good will of the Organisation of American States?

Dr. Owen

The people of Belize, as they have every right, want to be an independent country. They wish to have their independence against a stable background. The Organisation of American States is important if Belize as an independent Belize is to have that stability. We need to make certain that some of the territorial claims on this territory are abandoned, and if the Organisation agrees to preserve whatever boundaries would then be agreed to, I believe that Belize can look forward to a secure independence.

Mr. Newens

I heartily welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Can he tell the House what contacts he has had with the United States and what pre- cisely is the attitude of the United States? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the United States were prepared to make it absolutely clear that there will be no support whatever for Guatemala's pretences, there would be very little likelihood indeed of Guatemala being able to push ahead in the way that she has in the past?

Dr. Owen

In the past a point of some major disagreement with successive United States Administrations has been the question of Guatemala. I pay tribute to the fact that this Administration, particularly Secretary of State Vance, has taken a great deal of interest in the problem, recognised it and wants to see it resolved. Its help and involvement in it has been recognised by all sides. If agreement could be reached, the fact that it would be underwritten by the United States would be one of the greatest safeguards for an independent Belize.

Miss Joan Lestor

Bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend has said about Britain defending the territorial integrity of Belize as a Crown colony, may I ask whether he agrees that this is a very different situation from the situation in which Belize might find herself if she went independent? Will he therefore agree that it will be very sad indeed if Belize independence is held up simply because we cannot defend her territorial rights, which we are honour-bound to do?

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend poses a very fair question. It has been the view of successive Governments over periods of time now, when we have been going through the process of decolonisation, that it is incompatible and impossible to give a defence guarantee to colonies on their becoming independent. That has been one of the problems. If a country becomes independent, it is difficult to give a firm defence commitment to it. One of the reasons we have been involved in these negotiations is to try to resolve this issue. I do not believe that our involvement in Belize would end precipitately at the beginning of independence. If there were a negotiated settlement, we would phase out our involvement, but as a full member of the Commonwealth, Belize would be closely associated with this country.

Mr. John Davies

Does the Foreign Secretary realise that the problem we have is in the reconciliation of the expressions "territorial integrity" and "territorial adjustments"? Will he now confirm to us that if the people of Belize are consulted on a proposal of whatever kind, no duress whatever will be exercised upon them, either through the defence lever or in any other way, in order to force them into accepting what would otherwise have been an unacceptable arrangement?

Dr. Owen

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That would be indefensible, particularly since Belize is one of the last of the colonies. If we are to depart from the strong traditions that we have always held with Belsize, the decision should be freely made. It must be made without duress and freely made, but with the full understanding of the consequences of the situation. I agree that there is a choice between two evils. Many people want independence immediately without any form of territorial cession and no negotiation. That is what we have been unable to achieve over the last few years. They must grapple with the problem whether, in order to achieve independence, they will have to make some compromise. That is a choice which I think they can make.